It's lunchtime in Iowa City, and after a bite of her veggie sandwich, Wendi Winkie starts reading student papers. But these aren't just any classroom essays--they're from the new SAT, which launched in March with a new writing section. One of the questions--"Is creativity needed more than ever in the world today?"--is prompting creative answers. They range from Thoreau to vacuum cleaners. One essay argues that creativity is needed in the advertising world, because we see the same commercials for male-enhancement drugs. Winkie sits up, chuckles and gives the essay a 5 on a 6-point scale. But, she adds, "Just because you find a response humorous doesn't mean it's any better."
What does? Teachers and test-prep companies have been trying to figure that out since the College Board announced the new essay section. (Test- prep company Kaplan, like NEWSWEEK, is owned by The Washington Post Company.) Does neat handwriting help? (No.) How about vocabulary? (Papers that sprinkle in more sophisticated words tend to do better.) And spelling? (You're allowed some flubs; one student referred to Saddam Hussein as "Who-sane," and still wasn't penalized.) In an exclusive, the College Board let NEWSWEEK sit with scorers last week as they read essays, to see what they're looking for.
One of the challenges of a writing section, an idea the College Board has been kicking around since the '90s, is time. How do you read 2.3 million essays a year and still get scores back for applications? To speed the process, essays are scanned into computers and sent to scorers online. Two readers, from a pool of high-school and college teachers, look over each essay on computers; if their scores differ by more than a point, it's kicked up to a third reader.
In past essays, this happened only 3 percent of the time. Pearson Educational Measurement, which works with the College Board, helps train readers to look at essays "holistically"--based on the total impression they create. "We don't want scorers bringing in outside variables," says Daisy Vickers, director of design and development, so they're handed a set of pre-scored papers, called anchors, that illustrate how scores should drop with different levels of analysis. A sample "1," for instance, offers a few sentences about how creativity is good. In the scoring we saw, students who wrote formulaic five-paragraph essays didn't get the highest scores. "They can lack coherence and progression of ideas," says Ed Hardin, a College Board content specialist, as he looks over an essay that uses three simple examples from sports to defend creativity. "He has chosen to oversimplify his topic, to dumb it down to fit in this five-paragraph model." It gets a 3.
Future essay questions are still under review, and they might be tweaked based on how students answered this time. The creativity question was paired with a quote to get students thinking more academically. But some students were confused by the excerpt--it had the intimidating-sounding title "Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention," by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. "It didn't give me any direction," says Thomas Knowlton, 16, a junior at O'Dea High School in Seattle. Other students had a different question, asking if the opinion of the majority is a poor guide. Rhonda Kekke, a retired teacher and community-college administrator from Coralville, Iowa, looks at a response that's hardly legible and only three paragraphs long. But the writer packs in references to minority views from Galileo and other historical figures--as well as practices still rejected by the majority today--before ending on a note that urges readers to defend different opinions. "This person is simply a thinker," Kekke says. And so, this thoughtful essay earns the top score.